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The Decision to Euthanize Your Pet
How will I know when it is time?
Knowing when euthanasia should be considered depends on your pet’s health as well as your own. It is often helpful to look at the quality of life your pet is experiencing. Does your pet still enjoy eating and other simple pleasures? Is your pet able to respond to you in a normal way? Is your pet experiencing more pain than pleasure?
You will be able to make a much better decision, and be more comfortable in your decision if you get as much information as possible regarding your pet’s condition. If your pet is sick, ask about the treatment options, possible outcomes, and chances of recovery. In most instances, you will not need to make the decision immediately, so take time to think about what you should do. Discuss the decision with all of the other family members, including any children. Although it is a human tendency to question our decisions afterward, if you know you made informed decisions it will reduce the ‘what ifs’ you may tend to ask yourself. Decide what you want your pet’s death to be like.
As hard as it is, you need to consider the financial cost as well as the emotional cost of continuing to care for your pet. Do not feel guilty if you cannot afford expensive treatment; there are many people who cannot. It does not make you a ‘bad’ owner or one who loves their pet any less.
You need to consider what is best for your pet, but also what is best for you and your family. Are you physically able to manage your pet’s care? Do you feel ready to say good-bye, or do you need some more time? What will make it possible for you to feel comfortable regarding the decision?
What happens during euthanasia?
Euthanasia is a peaceful and virtually pain-free process, but it is best to understand what will occur and how your pet’s body may react. Knowing these things may help you make your decision regarding euthanasia, and make the process less traumatic for you.
To perform the euthanasia, first a catheter or needle will be inserted into a vein in your pet’s front or back leg. If your pet has been very sick, or has had many intravenous injections, it may take a little time for the veterinarian to find the best location.
Some veterinarians may then inject a drug into the vein which will place your pet in a state of relaxation. The actual drug used to perform the euthanasia is a concentrated solution of pentobarbital, which will also be injected into the vein. In most cases, the injection works very rapidly (5 seconds). The injection causes the pet’s heart to stop beating. In some instances, the time between the injection and the death of the pet may be slightly longer. This is especially true if the pet has poor circulation.
In some cases, the pet’s muscles may relax or contract after the pet has died. This can be very disconcerting if you are not aware of this possibility ahead of time. The muscles of the urinary bladder and the anus may relax, and your pet may void urine and stool. Involuntary contractions of muscles may result in the pet appearing to gasp, or move a leg. Again, remember your pet is not aware of these things happening since they happen after death. In almost all cases, the pet’s eyes will not close after death.
Knowing what happens during euthanasia may help you and other family members decide if they want to be present.
Options for the care of your pet’s body
You will need to make a decision as to how you want to care for your pet’s body. Depending upon where you live, your finances, and other factors, there may be several alternatives for you. If you have asked your veterinarian to dispose of the body it may be important for you to know how this is done.
Individual Cremation: Your pet’s body can be cremated at a special facility that cremates pets, and the ashes can be returned to you in a container either to keep or to scatter at a location you may choose.
Group cremation: You may choose to have your pet cremated with other pets. In this case, the ashes are generally not returned.
Burial at home: If it is allowed where you live (check your zoning restrictions), you may be able to bury your pet at home. Many people prefer this, but you should consider the fact you may move to a different home in the future.
Burial in a pet cemetery: Pet cemeteries are becoming more common, especially in urban areas.
Coping and Understanding the Stages Grief
It is unfortunate that pets live shorter lives than the people who own them. We are faced with pet loss many times in our lives. In modern society, pets have taken on remarkable rolls. Some substitute for spouses while others substitute for children, siblings and parents. Our pets’ ability to love unconditionally endears them to our hearts as little else can. A pet’s presence can lower your blood pressure, change your heart rate and remove feelings of loneliness. They are truly our “best friends”. A single pet can fulfill multiple rolls for different human family members. When a pet dies, bonds and rolls within the family must be rearranged. Often, the trauma of the loss will be unappreciated by your extended family and friends. Mourning or grief occurs in stages that are experienced similarly by people in all walks of life and from a wide variety of cultures. It is not a strictly predictable process and each of us experiences grief in different ways. Some of us will get stuck in one of the stages for a long period of time or never reach closure. It takes different people, differing lengths of time, to pass through the stages of grief and they do not necessarily occur in the same order or intensity in different people.
The Five Stages of Grief and Mourning:
1. It is common for our first reaction to learning of the death or terminal illness of a pet to be denial and inability to grasp the fact. We feel stunned, bewildered and dazed. This is a normal reaction, which is often called shock. Shock is temporary but it gets us through the initial weeks.
Here Are Some Things You Can Do To Hasten Acceptance And Healing:
Give yourself permission to grieve. Accept that you were very close to your pet and recognize how much the pet meant to you. Place a memorial plaque to your pet in a favorite spot. This allows you to pay tribute to the pet that meant so much to you. Try to get plenty of rest, eat well and exercise. Surround yourself with positive friends who understand your loss and let them share your burden. Treat yourself to pleasurable activities. Be patient. Recognize that you will have relapses of grief and sadness. Remember that grief will pass and life will be pleasant again. Don’t be afraid to lean on friends and pet loss support groups. The degree and depth of your mourning process depends on your own personality as well as outside factors. Your age, how the pet died and the closeness of your relationship all play a part in the feeling you experience. Children are more resilient than adults and usually recover first. Older people have the most difficult time accepting the loss of a pet.
How To Explain The Loss Of A Pet To Your Children:
As parents you may feel uncomfortable talking about death to your kids. You may think that silence will spare your children some of the pain and sadness. But, this is wrong. The whole family needs to talk freely together, even if through tears. Kids develop deep bonds to their pets. Once their best friend is gone they need to be allowed personal grief and closure.
The loss of a pet is often your child’s first need to confront the reality of death. We often do not realize how traumatic death is to a child because children do not express their emotions well. It is human nature to attempt to shield our children from grief. This is rarely necessary because children, from an early age, begin to understand the concept of irretrievable loss and death. Children should be taught from an early age the impermanence of life. A healthy understanding of death allows a child to experience the pain of loss and to express his or her feelings. A great deal of patience, hugs and kisses are required when explaining death to a small child. We need to give our children permission to express themselves and work through their grief – not bury it. Do not leave your children with the impression that anything they did was responsible for the loss of your pet.
Children younger than five years of age typically have no understanding of death. They think of it as extended sleep from which a pet will awake. Explain to these young children that the natural state of the world is such that pets die and do not return. Reassure them that nothing that was their fault caused the pets death.
Six and seven year old children have a limited understanding of death. They too may consider the pet to be sleeping or living somewhere in an underground home. They may expect the pet to eventually return and for death to be a temporary state of affairs. They may worry about their own mortality and need reassurance from you that they will not also die soon. They may temporarily loose their toilet training, bladder control, eating and sleeping patterns. Talking things out with them is the best cure for these problems. A child needs to express his or her feelings and concerns. This process may take a month or two. Many short discussions are generally more productive than one or two prolonged sessions. Your child may wish to have a funeral for the pet. Such a ceremony is a fitting way to say goodbye. Don’t rush out and purchase a new pet to ease the grief. Allow your children a reasonable time to accept the loss.
Children eight and older generally understand the permanence of death. Sometime the loss of a pet triggers a concern about the possible death of their parents. They may become curious about death and its implications and you should be ready to engage them in frank and honest discussions about the subject. These children will experience many of the stages of grief that you experience. They may have transient problems concentrating in school and relapse to more juvenile behaviors. Many enter a period of “clinginess” that lasts a few weeks.
Teenage children react similarly to adults. Denial is more common in this age group as are numbness and lack of emotional display. It is often years after the loss before these adolescents feel good about discussing their attachments to their lost pet.
After Your Pet Is Gone:
Our other family pets also feel the loss. Family pets that survive also go through a grieving process. Even pets that seem to dislike one another are profoundly affected by the loss of one of the group. In fact, pets show many of the signs that their human owners exhibit. They may become restless, anxious and depressed. Grieving pets often eat less. They search for their missing playmate and crave affection from their owners.
Here are some things you can do to ease the transition for a grieving pet. Try to maintain normalcy and routine. Pets thrive on routine and normalcy so try to maintain this as best you can. With the loss of a pet in a multi-pet household, new peck orders and dominance will have to be established. Try to avoid pet fights by separating the pets and their feeding locations as this process works itself out. Wait a month or two before obtaining new pets.
Cherish the memories of your pet as the present it left especially for you. Remember its destructive clown-like puppy or kittenhood with fondness. Remember the wonderful times you two had together – how your pet made you laugh, comforted you when you were sad and showed you unrestricted love and devotion. These memories will always be there to savor – they are the immortal legacy of a true friend.